In November 2008, Debbie Miller went to the emergency room with a slight pain in her chest, which turned out to be a blood clot that had found its way to her lung. She was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and transferred to the university medical center where she could be treated by her internist. The next morning, her doctor ordered various tests including a CT scan. That afternoon he informed Debbie that the scan had revealed a fairly large ovarian mass and that he had already referred her to the chief of the gynecologic oncology group at the medical center. Then came the oncologist's startling news that she "most likely" had ovarian cancer. Debbie recalls, "I was stunned! For a moment, time stood still. Suddenly, physicians and fellows from the gynecologic oncology training program were descending upon my room, reviewing my case, examining me, asking me about my symptoms-symptoms of ovarian cancer. Other than a slight change in urinary habits, the only 'symptom' I'd experienced was the blood clot."
Within several days, Debbie underwent surgery. She remembers waking up in her hospital bed and hearing her oncologist tell her that she had stage IIC ovarian cancer. Later, she learned that the histology was "clear cell," a rare and particularly chemotherapy-resistant cancer. Debbie used the skills and resources honed during her 20 years as an educator at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center to learn as much as she could about this disease.
She asked her physician about participation in a clinical trial. Three weeks later, she was enrolled in a clinical trial consisting of six chemotherapy treatments, to be followed by Avastin maintenance therapy for the remaining 12 months. On her second chemotherapy treatment, Debbie met JoAnne, another ovarian cancer survivor, also enrolled in the trial. Jo's disease symptoms were very different from Debbie's - a fairly persistent cough, which led to her unexpected diagnosis: Stage IV ovarian cancer. Debbie reminisces how "the two of us, attached to our IV poles, came together in one small chemotherapy room, where we laughed and sometimes cried together; we talked about our lives, our families, our friends, and this horrible disease. I cannot really explain why, but I got better while JoAnne did not. As happens too often with ovarian cancer, Jo's disease progressed and, just 8 months after her diagnosis, God called her home. This was a turning point for me. The promise that I had made to Jo about fighting ovarian cancer bloomed into a passion."
Debbie became active in ovarian cancer advocacy groups, including the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC). At one of their meetings she was approached by a staff member who asked if she would be interested in serving on a U.S. Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Program (OCRP) panel that reviewed ovarian cancer research grants. Debbie was intrigued " she had heard of the program and was very excited to become involved in it; however, she was not fully aware of the significance and impact of this program until she participated in her first grant review.
After three years, she feels that all of her review experiences with the OCRP have been amazing: "The detail involved, as well as the dedication and effort of many DOD staff members working with the associated organizations in this grant process, is beyond description. I don't think I have encountered a group of individuals involved in any project with more dedication than the core DOD staff, along with the basic and clinical science grant reviewers - individuals who have dedicated a significant part of their lives to fighting this disease. These scientists are so driven toward developing technologies leading to a cure for a disease that, in most cases, has not affected them personally the way it has us. As a reviewer, I see, firsthand, that consumers' perspectives are important and that they add a significant component to the entire process. In fact, a clinician reviewer told me that, as consumer reviewers, we have no idea the number of survivors we will impact by serving on the OCRP panel review. Though taken aback by her comment, I have come to believe that she is probably right!"
In addition to serving on OCRP grant review panels and being an active member in the NOCC, Debbie also serves as a patient advocate for Gynecologic Oncology Group (a national nonprofit organization) and as a facilitator for Survivors Teaching Students, a program sponsored by the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. As a result, she has met many other survivors and considers herself privileged to travel this journey with women in all walks of life. She is most affected by young stay-at-home moms who hope to survive just 5 years so they can see their elementary school children reach high school. "Women like this take my breath away... I am in awe of their courage."
Debbie believes that her family, her faith, the survivors she's met, and her promise to her friend Jo keeps her focused on fighting this disease. She reflects, "Recently, I was given a book that was special to her. In it is a quote from Mother Teresa that reads: 'I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish that He didn't trust me so much.' Thanks, Jo."